A Stratified Knowledge of Mission?: Constructing a Scientific Missiology with T.F. Torrance

One of the most well-known and thoroughly studied of T.F. Torrance’s contributions to theological thought is his commendation of a “scientific” approach to the knowledge of God, i.e. that the theological method ought to be determined by the nature of God as he has revealed himself to us. For Torrance, this comports a “stratified” concept of the knowledge that we acquire in our theological work. In other words, the knowledge of God that we apprehend becomes progressively greater (or higher, as the metaphor suggests) as we penetrate ever further into the depths of God’s self-revelation. Torrance explains:

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Image by Steve Thomason, deepintheburbs.com

[T]he unfolding of the doctrine of the Trinity takes place as it moves from its implicit biblical form to an explicit theological form. We found that doctrinal formulation involves here, as in all areas of scientific knowledge, a stratified structure of several coordinated levels of understanding in which the conceptual content and structure of basic knowledge becomes progressively disclosed to inquiry.

We moved from the ground level of evangelical or biblical knowledge of God as he is revealed to us in the saving activity of his incarnate Son, to a distinctly theological level in an attempt to grasp and give intelligible expression to the unbroken relation in Being and Act between Christ and the Holy Spirit to God the Father, which belongs to the very heart of the Gospel message of God’s redeeming love. This involved a decisive movement of thought, under the guidance of the key insight of the Nicene Creed expressed in the homoousion, from a preconceptual to a conceptual level of understanding which Christian faith takes under the compelling claims of God’s self-revelation and self-communication in the incarnation.

We then moved to a higher theological level devoted to a deepening and refining of the theological concepts and relations operating at the second level, this time with particular help from the notion of perichoresis, in terms of which the doctrine of the Holy Trinity as one Being, three Persons comes to its fullest formulation, yet in such a way that it serves understanding and appreciation of the saving and redemptive message of the Gospel upon which the whole Christian faith is grounded.

In this stratified structure of different epistemological levels, we noted that each level is open to consistent and deeper understanding in the light of the theological concepts and relations operating at the next level, and that the top level, and indeed the whole coordinated structure with it, while open-ended and incomplete in itself, points indefinitely beyond itself to the ineffable, transcendent Mystery of the Holy Trinity. Thus each level serves deeper and fuller understanding of the ground level of evangelical experience and cognition and relates the Trinity to God’s redemptive mission in Christ and in the Holy Spirit, inspiring worship and calling forth from us wonder, thanksgiving, adoration and praise.[1]

My purpose in this post is not to detail what Torrance means by the three levels of knowledge through which we pass in our apprehension of God, even though I realize that the above discussion may be a bit difficult to understand for some. I am more interested in exploring how this concept — which Torrance typically utilizes in relation to the knowledge of God as Trinity — might provide a structure upon which a scientific missiology (i.e. a missiology exclusively derived from the gospel message of God’s saving mission) can be constructed. In other words, does our theology of mission begin with our own experience in encountering and participating in the mission of the church, which we then articulate in terms of the missio Dei, which we ultimately discover is connected to the inner transcendent life of the Triune God himself?

This is not something that Torrance (to my knowledge) ever attempted, yet I think that the potential for using this stratified approach to theological knowledge in the field of missiology is there. In my reading of Torrance, even when he does not specifically say so, he seems to operate within these epistemological levels in virtually every theological task that he undertakes. So in this post I am simply posing the question: is it possible that Torrance’s view of Christian mission — which in turn drove his life’s work as a whole — can be helpfully elucidated in terms of the stratified epistemology with which he expounded the doctrine of the Trinity? It seems to me that the final sentence of the above quote would indicate this possibility.

In future “Reformission Monday” posts, I hope to explore this in further detail.

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[1] T.F. Torrance, The Christian doctrine of God, one being three persons (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 113.

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This entry was posted in Doctrine of God, Gospel, Homoousion, Knowledge of God, Missiology, Mission & evangelism, Reformission, T.F. Torrance, Theological methodology, Theological science, Trinity. Bookmark the permalink.